By David Ball
Funkster Rick James’ “Give It to Me Baby” peaked at No. 40 on Billboard’s pop chart on July 18, 1981. The first single from his multi-platinum LP Street Songs became his second crossover Top 40 pop hit, although it spent an impressive five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart, two spots higher than the album’s more famous followup track, “Super Freak.”
The accompanying music video was extremely popular thanks to heavy exposure via MTV and then a few years later on both MuchMusic and the groundbreaking NBC program “Friday Night Videos.” “Give It to Me Baby” still airs semi-regularly on Bell Media’s specialty music video channel, MuchVIBE (MuchMusic’s sister channel). James became one of the first artists in the early 1980s to capitalize on the power of the music video and consequently became one of the decade’s biggest stars.
You may be wondering why I’m mentioning Rick James in the first place, given This Week in Music History’s penchant for focusing on Canadian-related stories. Well, I want to float a motion that makes the super freak himself an honorary Canuck.
Hear me out: Arcade Fire count a couple of proud Americans in its ranks – brothers Win and William Butler – but the band is still considered as Canadian as Stompin’ Tom Connors. It helps that the Grammy and JUNO Award–winning supergroup are card-carrying Montreal ambassadors, absolutely love this country and produce music that falls under Canadian content parameters. Yes, the California-born, Texas-raised Butler brothers have more than earned their honorary Canadian status.
Same thing goes for Levon Helm and The Band. The Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees are from Stratford, Ont., but the pioneering rock quintet’s late great drummer and singer was from Arkansas. The way I look at it, Helm is a freakin’ honorary Canadian Hall of Fame ambassador!
Then there’s Neko Case. Because of her associations with Canadian indie rockers The New Pornographers and The Sadies, I bet there are lots of folks out there who think the ultra-cool singer-songwriter is originally from British Columbia. Nope. She was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and spent her formative years in Tacoma, Washington, as well as Seattle, Chicago and Vancouver. So add her to the honorary Canadian list too!
But how does this relate to Rick James as an honorary Canadian?
In the mid-1960s James shared a flat in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood with Canadian icon Neil Young. During his tenure in the Ontario capital (James fled the United States to avoid the Vietnam War) he founded one of the most exciting Canadian R&B bands of the decade, The Mynah Birds (who were active from 1964 to 1967). Although they didn’t produce any albums or hit singles, they did sign an impressive seven-year contract with Motown Records, though the deal reportedly fell apart in 1966 during a recording session in Detroit when James got busted for being absent without leave from the US Navy.
Those facts alone should cement James status as a honorary hoser, but there’s more…
The Mynah Birds front man and leader helped nurture the careers of fellow bandmates Neil Young and Bruce Palmer (shortly before the Canadian duo would head south to form Buffalo Springfield) and future Steppenwolf members, Nick St. Nicholas and Goldy McJohn (and many others). Take James out of the equation and the rock ’n’ roll landscape on this side of the border would sound a whole lot different/worse. And a few last quick hits: James was born in Buffalo, New York, which is pretty damn close to Canada; when James got busted Bruce Palmer stated: “We thought he was Canadian”; and the invaluable but occasionally erroneous online Canadian history website Northern Blue Publishing refers to James as a “Canadian blues artist.” So, at least consider the possibility that Rick James should be an honorary Canadian… as long as we can all forgive his horrific drug-fuelled convictions from the early 1990s. Hey, at least he was damn funny on Dave Chappelle’s sketch comedy program!
Rich Little’s short-lived hour-long NBC variety show ended its 14-episode run on July 19, 1976. Hosted by the Ottawa-born impressionist, “The Rich Little Show” featured comedy sketches, stand-up routines and musical segments; some of the series regulars included Charlotte Rae and Little’s own sheepdog, Dudley. No wonder it was cancelled! (I kid!) Notably, one of the show’s writers was Barry Levinson, who would go on to direct the acclaimed films Diner and Rain Man.
During the show’s short run, some of the guests appearing on the program included fellow impressionist Frank Gorshin (Batman’s original Riddler), The Jackson 5 (they sang “Forever Came Today”), Susan Saint James (she did a tap dance routine), Glenn Ford (the prolific Canadian-born actor performed with a pack of Dalmatians – I’d kill to see that video clip) and game show host/cheesy entertainer John Davidson (who incited a near-riot with his balls-to-the-wall medley of “Feelings,” “Mandy” and “My Eyes Adored You”). Other notable guests included George Burns, Peter Marshall, Mel Tormé, The Hudson Brothers, Glen Campbell, Bernadette Peters, Bing Crosby, The Silvers, Ron Howard, Sherman Hemsley, Tom Bosley, Bill Cosby, McLean Stevenson (still on a roll from his brilliant decision to quit MASH) and, of course, Betty White.
Little stuck to doing what he does best throughout the show’s 14 episodes, including a spot-on Johnny Carson impression and spoofs such as Inspector Clumseau (a “Pink Panther” parody) and Welcome Back Kosher (a take on the popular John Travolta/Gabe Kaplan sitcom). Little’s series may not have lasted very long, but he remains one of the world’s greatest impressionists. The 73-year-old still performs in Las Vegas and occasionally lends his vast vocal talents to animated feature films and television programs.
Canada’s first major jazz festival kicked off in Toronto on July 22, 1959. Toronto Jazz Festival was held over four days at the CNE Grandstand and featured over 30 local and international artists including Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees Oscar Peterson (his name still does NOT grace Canada’s Walk of Fame – at this rate, Rick James will beat him to the sidewalk) and Maynard Ferguson, along with special guest Louis Armstrong. Canada sure picked a great time to hold its first big festival. Commercially and creatively speaking, 1959 is considered by many scholars as jazz’s zenith and one the greatest eras in the history of American music. (NOTE: 1959 was also the year that saw the untimely passing of Billie Holiday and saxophone giant Lester Young.)
Some of the genre’s most important albums ever were recorded or released in 1959: Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis, Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus, Giant Steps by John Coltrane, Portrait in Jazz by the Bill Evans Trio and The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman (not to be confused with Refused’s hardcore punk masterpiece, The Shape of Punk to Come).
Not to be outdone, the Toronto festival’s homegrown headliners, Peterson and Ferguson, were already stars in their own right: the former released 15 albums alone in 1959, including one of his best, The Jazz Soul of Oscar Peterson (a year removed from his sensational live effort, On the Town). There’s piss-poor historical data regarding this important bit of Canadian history, so once again, I wish I had a time machine to experience everything firsthand!
Next week: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Paul Anka
“I’ve Got You in My Soul” by The Mynah Birds